The Last Jew of Chelm
In Chelm, where I grew up, I remember a town of many Jews and a fair few Gentiles. My family, like all the Jewish families in Chelm used to lament the Czar and then later during the Polish-Russian War they lamented the Communist occupation and then they lamented the nationalist government and when the Nazis came, they stopped lamenting. Then in the displaced persons’ camp they started lamenting again, and briefly we lamented in the land of Israel, and then in the Lower East side, a hotel in Cincinnati, on subjects ranging from the Yiddish Press to whether a Soviet Invasion of America would be a good thing or not, until finally on a vacation in Niagara Falls, I decided I had had enough of these wandering lamentations and decided to return to Chelm to live out my days.
I recall from my childhood that even in a provincial town like Chelm, far away from Warsaw, many people thought of themselves as revolutionaries. My father, who was a Bundist, took me to the hill overlooking Chelm and told me to take off my glasses. “What do you see?” he asked me. “Its blurry” I replied. “Exactly!” my father responded, getting increasingly excited, “But in the future, you will see Jews from the East unto the West.” “Which direction is East and which direction is West?” I asked. My father tutted. “Nudnigs Eat Saltbeef Whenever” he said pointing to the left and then the right. “The point is, the Bundists are going to create new Jews, no longer needing spectacles. And what are the Zionists doing? Nothing! Apart from sitting around all day discussing Zionist theory.” When as an old man he was receiving corrective eye surgery in a Tel Aviv clinic and was able to see the world again anew, I reminded my father of his words. He simply replied that my story was nonsense as there was no such hill overlooking Chelm.
I found the once proud community a shadow of its former self. The synagogue across the road from where I grew up had been converted into well to do flats for government officials. The street had lost its hustle and bustle. Jewish women in modest dresses had been replaced by gentile women who smiled knowingly at drunken men standing outside local bars making comments and winking at them as they walked past. My return doubled the number of Jews in Chelm. There were now two Jews in Chelm – myself and the local Catholic Priest. The priest was a real mensch. During the war, he had been a righteous gentile and later he had been made an honorary Jew by the state of Israel in recognition of his activities.
He had instigated a whispering campaign implying that prominent local Nazis had large noses and slight curls at the end of their hair. Nazi officers, shocked that they possessed anything other than pure Aryan features would visit the only plastic surgeon in the area, Doctor Levertov, and the best barber in town, Shmuel Grinsky and would beg to be helped.
The priest’s rumours took hold with such persuasion, that Hitler himself if he had been in the area would have visited the local barber to get imperceptible adjustments to his hair. Over time, these rumours became the major source of income to the Chelm ghetto and allowed them to purchase and smuggle in three revolvers, which were used in the famous Chelm Ghetto Brunch Uprising of August 19th, 11.03 – 11.57 am, so called because it started when Grodzinskis in Chelm started to refuse to sell buerekas after 11am on weekdays.
Throughout all the lamentations, the worst thing that ever happened to me, happened many years later, because of Bela. Bela was the woman I married when I returned to Chelm. She was short, had black curls, dark eyes, a prominent nose and I was sure cooked the best chicken soup in South East Poland. She was a Gentile, but if you were the type to marry a Gentile, she was as close to the real thing as you were going to get.
One year, the day before Yom Kippur. I had been out trying to eat as much food as possible in anticipation of the fast ahead. I returned home having eaten the finest dishes from three of Chelm’s best restaurants. I was already looking forward to breaking the fast in just over a days time. When I entered the kitchen, Bela was just finishing a bowlful of tortellini. “Would you like some?” she asked, “There is some in the pot.” “Bela my little Bagele” I replied, “why not?” and put some on a plate. The taste was unfamiliar to me. Not worse or better than the familiar tastes of tortellini I knew, just different. It certainly was not Spinach and Ricotta.
After a few mouthfuls I began to become suspicious. “Bela?” I asked. “What is inside this tortellini?” “Oh” she replied, “I’m sorry, pork and mushroom”. “Pork! you know I cannot eat pork.” “I’m sorry, what will happen?” An image entered my mind of a small pink animal with a short curled tail ready to blow my old house opposite the synagagogue down. “Its Yom Kippur. Nothing will happen, but it is the most important day of the year.” I looked at her and her dark ringlets and cursed my luck. I began to feel sick, as if all the sins of living in a town with only one other Jew, unable to form a Minyan were upon me. Eating pork just before the Kol Nidre service, I will have treif meat inside me on the holiest day of the Jewish year. Throughout all the wanderings, it is my own wife that brings such a calamity upon me. Truly I thought, this is the reason why they say Jews should not marry Gentiles.